Led Bib: It's Not Lady Gaga
Led Bib: a short, sharp shock of a name for one of the hardest-hitting bands on the UK jazz scene. But the name doesn't tell the whole story, for this is also a band that's capable of inventive and intensely emotive music as well as the riff-laden numbers that have helped it to earn the label of "Punk Jazz," among others. In the runup to the release of the band's fifth album, Bring Your Own (Cuneiform, 2011), the band's amiable and articulate founder and drummer, Mark Holub, spoke of Led Bib's development and its growth as a unit, his thoughts about the Led Bib sound, and the secret imagery of the mysterious Bring Your Own cover art.
Holub, pictured below right, is a native of New Jersey who moved to England to study, gaining his Bachelor's degree at Leeds College of Music and then his Masters at Middlesex University. Basing himself in London, he formed Led Bib in 2003. The lineup that has featured on all of the band's recordings was established soon after that: Holub is joined in the rhythm section by bassist Liran Donin; Toby McLaren plays keyboards, Fender Rhodes in particular; and the front line features the twin alto saxophones of Pete Grogan and Chris Williams.
The band spent its early years developing its reputation around the British and European jazz scenes, and also garnering some fans from outside jazz. The first album, Arboretum (SLAM Products), was released in 2005, followed by Sizewell Tea (Babel) in 2007 and then a limited-edition self-produced live album, Led Bib Live, in 2008. All well and good, but the big breakthrough, as with the vast majority of jazz ensembles, proved more elusive. Then, in 2009, Led Bib gained a Mercury Music Prize nomination for its fourth album, Sensible Shoes (Cuneiform, 2009), bringing it to the attention of a much wider audience.
The nomination's impact was positive: as Holub puts it, "From the nomination to the actual award ceremony, everything was crazy. It's an odd world for a jazzer to find himself in. Usually when I'm doing interviews, it's with people who have a knowledge of the music, then suddenly you're doing press with people who have no frame of reference for you at all. It's quite weird. But obviously it gave us a platform to reach people we wouldn't ordinarily reach."
That platform extended to television, a medium that is rarely open to British jazz bands. Holub recognizes the impact of TV, especially in terms of audience numbers: "It's striking just what a difference being on television makes. You can be on Radio 3 [BBC Radio's specialist music station, which is mainly devoted to classical music but also hosts jazz shows] so many times, and it's great, but it is still that specialist audience. Three minutes on television and you immediately sell a couple of thousand CDs more."
The "Mercury Effect," if that's what it could be called, still works in Led Bib's favor two years on, with the band's profile continuing to benefit from the exposure. But Holub is realistic about what that means for a band from a minority-interest genre: "We're still jazzers; we're not selling millions."
Holub's use of the word "jazzers" makes his feelings about Led Bib's musical standpoint clear, but it's an intriguing contrast to the adjectives applied by many critics and reviewers, who seem to have struggled to pigeonhole the group. It's been variously described as "punk jazz," like Test Department or The Velvet Underground, free improvisation, and avant-garde. So how does Holub feel about these descriptions? "Well, I think there are lots of different influences, but it does become a sticky question. Some people are rather quick to throw away the jazz title, to say we sound like Radiohead or whatever. But in my gut, I don't feel that way. I feel that what Led Bib does is jazz. Jazz is something that's continually evolving, taking on outside influences. But then you tell people who don't listen to a lot of jazz that this is what Led Bib plays and they have this clear idea that we'll sound like '40s or '50s bebopand we're not that. But we have become rockier, I guess, especially Bring Your Own. But we're also more confident in what we feel is right musically."
As Holub discusses this confidence, it becomes obvious that to him confidence does not simply equal a decision to play music that is more complex. Confidence, for Holub, is refreshingly linked to the idea of playing more simply: "We can trust our judgment: instead of thinking, 'I have to play some clever jazz thing here,' just play what you think sounds good. I think that's a problem with contemporary jazz, big time. ... You should always be serving the music, but sometimes it can become a bit too clevermaybe because everybody goes to university now."